Girls Tennis: Monarch's Zhang enters season accomplished in Special Olympics

Mar. 12—It's not often that a high school sports program has a gold medalist in its midst but this year, Monarch girls tennis has plenty to boast about.

Senior Michelle Zhang is taking the courts as a Special Olympics winner in both skiing and tennis, having competed in the Games multiple times.

This season, she'll serve as co-captain for the Coyotes as well as a No. 3 doubles player on varsity. She's the only senior to have played on varsity for the last three years after joining the program as a sophomore.

"It's just her motivation," head coach Billy Downs said. "She just tries the best. She gives a lot of energy, 100% energy for everything. I mean, you can see it in an intensity when she's playing and in the emotions if things don't go well, which has helped her."

Over the past seven years, 17-year-old Zhang has served as both athlete and ambassador. She raked in gold medals in slalom at the regional Special Olympics in 2017 and 2018, then went national in 2022, where she claimed the title in singles tennis while also playing doubles. She was one of just two girls to represent Colorado that year.

Her emotions overwhelmed her through every victory along the way, even if the 2022 conditions in Orlando weren't the most favorable on the courts.

"It was very astonishing. I cried so badly, like, 'How did I become that successful out of nowhere?'" Zhang said. "I took a lot of things seriously with practice and my skills improving. It was a very pressuring thing to do.

"We were in Florida, and it was a very not great environment. What I mean is very hot, raining, humid. There were various athletes, unified partners and coaches that I kind of felt partly introverted. I didn't know them, but when I got to know them, it was better."

Through tennis and Special Olympics, Zhang has been able to break out of her shell, even working as a liaison between the youth activation committee and athlete leadership council within the program. Her role circulates around recruiting athletes under the age of 21, all while serving as an inspiration herself.

She's taken pride in her ability to juggle those responsibilities as well as academics through the demanding schedule of a varsity athlete, and hopes to wrap up her high school career on a high note.

Her mother, Lingling Liu, is grateful for the opportunities that Monarch has been able to provide for her as she's grown, both as a competitor and as a student.

"They are very inclusive. The team has a very friendly culture, very nice," Liu said. "She likes tennis. She said it helps her to motivate her and helps her to stay focused, and then she can learn how to manage to do her stuff. Social-wise, she makes friends here and she's happy. Coach Billy always makes sure that they teach them and make sure they play with the techniques and also play fair. ... Every year, she can't wait to get the season started. She looks forward to it."